“Pase, por favor.”
No, this is not a formal meeting, just an elevator ride in Antofagasta. The short one-minute trip up or down with strangers involves the art of saludar bien, i.e. greeting people on the way in and out. People in Santiago aren’t rude, but los antofagastinos seem super polite. I lost count of how many times I said “gracias” and all—politeness is contagious.
Despite its size, Antofagasta had a small-town feel, much like Paraná in Argentina or Pelotas in Brazil. Not many foreign tourists stop there. I didn’t hear any English or Portuguese, so we were a bit of a curiosity. The downside was possibly the lack of infrastructure and services for travellers—laundry service, tourist info centre (I think there’s one, but I didn’t see it) or Spanish spoken at normal speed without slang words—and people’s surprise when we were clueless about local customs since everyone just assumed we were Chileans. On the plus side, Antofagasta was refreshingly cheap, relaxing and easy to figure out—what you see is what you get.
I found antofagastinos disarmingly honest. Not once prices were inflated because we were stupid tourists, for instance. One evening, I tried on a pair of shorts and I wanted to buy it, but I was 1,000 pesos short. “I’ll come back later,” I said. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” the salesperson replied. “That’s fine, just take it.” And this wasn’t in a market where bargaining is expected but in a regular store. Another time, I asked for one of the empanadas on display in a fuente de soda. “Nah, don’t buy it, it’s old. Just go around the block, they have freshly baked ones,” the shop owner advised. When we wanted to stay an extra day, we emailed the apartment owner. “Oh sure, that’s okay.” Like, whatever. And then we had to email him again to ask when we could meet to pay him. I’m pretty sure he forgot this little detail.
Another funny local quirk was people asking me to take their pictures. I often take candid shots and while I don’t ask for permission in public places—I do make a point of portraying people at their best, though—I blend in and I don’t invade personal space. This is the stealth method, which usually works well—except in Antofagasta where random people wanted to have their picture taken. When I obliged and offered to email them a copy, they were over-the-top happy.
People of Antofagasta made our stay fun and relaxing. If any of them stumble upon these pictures, I hope they like them.